It’s time to change shortstops

It’s time to change shortstops

For years, Jose Barrero has been destined to be the Reds shortstop. The prospect ratings were undeniable. Less than a year ago, Baseball America ranked Barrero the #34 prospect in baseball. Ahead of Hunter Greene, Nick Lodolo and Elly De La Cruz. Prospect huggers who populate social media pounded keyboards long and loud for Barrero. Call him up now! Start him now! urged the Barrero Beliebers. Jose Barrero’s minor league performance itself ordained his arrival. The young shortstop tore through High-A in 2019 and Double-A and Triple-A in 2021.

The conclusion was inescapable. By spring training 2022, Barrero had reached “nothing left to prove in the minors” status.

Then a wrist injury derailed Inevitable.

Barrero’s Journey

Barrero missed the first month and a half of 2022. Upon return, he was assigned to Louisville where he struggled in 238 plate appearances (.209/.262/.377). In August, with the Reds having traded away the final remnants of a contending team, Barrero was promoted to the big leagues. He started at short the rest of the season and in 174 plate appearances hit .152/.195/.206 (wRC+ of 5). Barrero’s miserable 2022 with the Reds included a harmonious chorus of negative defensive ratings.

That said, the front office plan to put Barrero back at shortstop for the Reds in 2023 was sound. The idea: In a lost season, throw him out there (again) and see what’s there.

Jose Barrero has rebounded to a degree. In 61 plate appearances, he’s cut his strikeout rate nearly in half and his walk rate (11.5%) is above league average. Overall, though, he’s hit .245/.328/.340 (wRC+ of 79).

In a lineup so bereft of power hitting, Jose Barrero kinda fits in. If he was providing meaningful value in the field, the Reds could put up with that offense and continue his trial at shortstop. We expected better-than-good defense from Barrero, as minor league scouting reports conveyed excellent glove skills. Instead, his defense has graded out as a liability, a significant one. Whether you use DRS (-8), UZR/150 (-28) or OAA (-3). Jose Barrero has been one of the worst defenders in the league.

The notion that infield defense makes a difference in the win-loss column was on full display in Pittsburgh this weekend. The Pirates young third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes has been a below average hitter, but he contributed 24 defensive runs saved (DRS) last year. You may have noticed his game-saving play at third Thursday night or a similar important out on Saturday. Those plays stood in stark contrast to Barrero’s game-losing boot at short on Friday.

Yet, even with all that — below-average offense and defense — it still might make sense for the Reds to keep Jose Barrero at short. The case would be: He just turned 25 this month. Leave him at short and see if anything clicks before the early waves of must-play prospects land on the infield dirt at Great American Ball Park.

Makes sense, except for one thing. Well, one person. Matt McLain.

Kicking Down the Door

The effects of the wrecking ball Reds ownership and the front office took to 2023 roster are in plain sight. As unfair as it is to fans and the team’s established players, all that’s left this season is development. Even though it’s only April, it’s obvious pursuing any other goal is a fool’s errand.

Matt McLain should be one of the guys at the forefront.

It’s only been a few weeks, but McLain has had one of those “kick the door down” starts playing for Louisville. In 84 plate appearances [through 4/23], he’s hit .284/.429/.567. That’s a wRC+ of 160. His walk-rate is 18% and strikeout rate just 23%. If you like counting stats, try five home runs and six stolen bases.

The Reds should install Matt McLain at shortstop starting tomorrow and give him, not Jose Barrero, the “see what we have” treatment.

Figuring It Out (or starting to)

That’s not to say McLain is better than Barrero. McLain’s future with the Reds may be at shortstop, another position or nowhere. But the time has come to get the 23-year-old playing on a major league field, matched up with major league pitching and to start figuring out where he belongs.

Likewise, this is not a call to give up on Jose Barrero. He’s too young and flashed too much talent in the minors. The cautionary tale told by Jose Barrero’s last 14 months isn’t one of outright failure. It’s that the path from minor league stardom to big league success — for even the most sure-thing prospect — is often not straight or quick or Inevitable.

With the shadow of De La Cruz looming larger by the day and Barrero’s deficiencies so far on both sides of the ball, is it any longer reasonable to expect him to be the Reds shortstop of the future? Not based on what we’ve seen in 110+ games. The front office needs implement their Plan B for Barrero, whatever that is. If that’s centerfield, fine. If that’s across the infield as utility player, also fine. He could do either of those with the Reds or in Louisville.

Would a switch from Jose Barrero to Matt McLain tomorrow as the Reds shortstop be rushing? In most circumstances, you bet.

But Reds ownership and front office have set out on a radical path. They burned the riverboats behind them by trading or giving away everyone they could. They’ve landed in unmapped territory with a group of unproven (but pre-arbitration!) youngsters. It’s time to start exploring. For better or worse, it’s where the Reds are now.

Steve Mancuso

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.

1 Response

  1. Brian Phillip Van Hook says:

    Great read. My bottom line is that Barrero needs to play. I don’t care where. Since McLain’s time is now, play him too. The plan all along had to be to move players around defensively as more arrived from the minors, right?

    But then the DH/1B spots are pretty much filled with Votto when he gets back and Tyler Stephenson when he isn’t catching. Maybe India should be getting some time at DH so Barrero and McLain can both stay in the infield?

    And why are the Reds wasting their time with Wil Myers? Yeah, it’s easier to pick on him now when he’s struggling so badly, but in a non-contending year like this, getting these other guys at-bats is more important than a lottery ticket the Reds could get for Myers at the trade deadline.

    And, of course, this all begs the question of what happens when Elly De La Cruz is ready. Maddening to think we’re not doing the one thing that absolutely has to happen. Finding out about the up-and-comers.